One argument I made during my lecture at GDC this year (video of a nearly identical lecture available here) was that downloadable game developers and publishers need to start putting much more energy into marketing and PR way earlier in the development cycle of their games. I was talking about XBLA, PSN and Wiiware, but you could apply this to any video game ecosystem, really. As I was catching up with developers and publishers over the course of last week, this issue came up over and over again (i.e. they were on the verge of launching a game that hadn’t been promoted in any significant way) so I thought it worth writing about.
I have no way to incontrovertibly prove that I’m right about the importance of long-lead PR, but I believe that plenty of public information is available to back up my assertion. For example, the large majority of really big, known hits on XBLA: Braid, Castle Crashers, Worms, both Street Fighter games, etc, are games that were revealed to the public well over a year before they were launched (well over two years, in the case of some games.) They were covered by the press and discussed on active consumer forums repeatedly before their release. Very few big hits were announced in just the few months (or worse yet, weeks) leading up to the game’s release, with a couple of notable exceptions that Microsoft put some big PR and marketing muscle behind and/or were released back in the “golden days” of XBLA (when every game was doing quite well.) More importantly, some very good XBLA games that received absolutely zero advance promotion have failed to meet their developers’ expectations.
This isn’t really a surprise to anyone who understands the fundamentals of consumer psychology. There’s a whole boatload of research showing that we humans are more apt to like something that we’re familiar with than something that we have never (or have rarely) encountered before. The power of familiarity is so great that (for example,) exposure to a random drawing for mere milliseconds in a neutral or positive context will increase your appreciation of that drawing in subsequent viewings, relative to other random drawings that you’ve never seen before. And it’s certainly clear that long-lead PR hasn’t hurt mega retail games (like, for example, anything created by Blizzard.) So why is this misconception so prevalent? I think one reason is that everybody knows about certain games, primarily of the retail variety, that had a tremendous amount of long-lead hype and subsequently crashed and burned on launch, but I would contend that the majority of those games launched with serious flaws that led to a fatal mismatch between consumer expectations and reality. The answer? Definitely hype your game well in advance of its release, but be sure that you can meet the expectations that you’ve set when you do so. This isn’t rocket science.
Who are some of the developers and publishers who get this? The Behemoth and Capcom are great examples. When you’re trying to craft a marketing and PR strategy, look to them for examples of how to do things right. If you are not formulating a robust marketing and PR strategy from the first day you begin working on your game, you are setting yourself up for failure. Being a small company with no marketing budget is not an excuse, especially if you’re working on an original IP. In fact, it’s even more important for you to be thinking up low-cost things you can do to get consumers and the press excited about your game.
Can you create interesting or amusing videos related to your game that will get picked up by Kotaku or will spread virally? Can you send something surprising to IGN that will get them to write about your game in a positive way? Can you do something to get fans of a previous game to tell all their buddies about your next title? Is there a way to invite fans and potential fans into the development process, such that they become invested and become advocates? These questions are absolutely as important as “is the game fun?” and “can I get a publisher?”
Or you could go ahead and make a great game without regard for how many people have ever heard of it. Your ten future customers (including your mom) will thank you for it.